On artificial intelligence and solitary confinement.

On artificial intelligence and solitary confinement.

512px-Ludwig_WittgensteinIn Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe), Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that something strange occurs when we learn a language.  As an example, he cites the problems that could arise when you point at something and describe what you see:

The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ “ – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact.  But how can two be defined like that?  The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts!

I laughed aloud when I read this statement.  I borrowed Philosophical Investigations a few months after the birth of our second child, and I had spent most of his first day pointing at various objects in the hospital maternity ward and saying to him, “This is red.”  “This is red.”

“This is red.”

Of course, the little guy didn’t understand language yet, so he probably just thought, the warm carry-me object is babbling again.

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Red, you say?

Over time, though, this is how humans learn.  Wittgenstein’s mistake here is to compress the experience of learning a language into a single interaction (philosophers have a bad habit of forgetting about the passage of time – a similar fallacy explains Zeno’s paradox).  Instead of pointing only at two nuts, a parent will point to two blocks – “This is two!” and two pillows – “See the pillows?  There are two!” – and so on.

As a child begins to speak, it becomes even easier to learn – the kid can ask “Is this two?”, which is an incredibly powerful tool for people sufficiently comfortable making mistakes that they can dodge confirmation bias.

y648(When we read the children’s story “In a Dark Dark Room,” I tried to add levity to the ending by making a silly blulululu sound to accompany the ghost, shown to the left of the door on this cover. Then our youngest began pointing to other ghost-like things and asking, “blulululu?”  Is that skeleton a ghost?  What about this possum?)

When people first programmed computers, they provided definitions for everything.  A ghost is an object with a rounded head that has a face and looks very pale.  This was a very arduous process – my definition of a ghost, for instance, is leaving out a lot of important features.  A rigorous definition might require pages of text. 

Now, programmers are letting computers learn the same way we do.  To teach a computer about ghosts, we provide it with many pictures and say, “Each of these pictures has a ghost.”  Just like a child, the computer decides for itself what features qualify something for ghost-hood.

In the beginning, this process was inscrutable.  A trained algorithm could say “This is a ghost!”, but it couldn’t explain why it thought so.

From Philosophical Investigations: 

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 8.40.41 AMAnd what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the color’ consist in?  Point to a piece of paper.  – And now point to its shape – now to its color – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it?  – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed.  And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc.  But I ask again: how is that done?

After this passage, Wittgenstein speculates on what might be going through a person’s head when pointing at different features of an object.  A team at Google working on automated image analysis asked the same question of their algorithm, and made an output for the algorithm to show what it did when it “concentrated its attention.” 

Here’s a beautiful image from a recent New York Times article about the project, “Google Researchers Are Learning How Machines Learn.”  When the algorithm is specifically instructed to “point to its shape,” it generates a bizarre image of an upward-facing fish flanked by human eyes (shown bottom center, just below the purple rectangle).  That is what the algorithm is thinking of when it “concentrates its attention” on the vase’s shape.

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At this point, we humans could quibble.  We might disagree that the fish face really represents the platonic ideal of a vase.  But at least we know what the algorithm is basing its decision on.

Usually, that’s not the case.  After all, it took a lot of work for Google’s team to make their algorithm spit out images showing what it was thinking about.  With most self-trained neural networks, we know only its success rate – even the designers will have no idea why or how it works.

Which can lead to some stunningly bizarre failures.

artificial-intelligence-2228610_1280It’s possible to create images that most humans recognize as one thing, and that an image-analysis algorithm recognizes as something else.  This is a rather scary opportunity for terrorism in a world of self-driving cars; street signs could be defaced in such a way that most human onlookers would find the graffiti unremarkable, but an autonomous car would interpret in a totally new way.

In the world of criminal justice, inscrutable algorithms are already used to determine where police officers should patrol.  The initial hope was that this system would be less biased – except that the algorithm was trained on data that came from years of racially-motivated enforcement.  Minorities are still more likely to be apprehended for equivalent infractions.

And a new artificial intelligence algorithm could be used to determine whether a crime was “gang related.”  The consequences of error can be terrible, here: in California, prisoners could be shunted to solitary for decades if they were suspected of gang affiliation.  Ambiguous photographs on somebody’s social media site were enough to subject a person to decades of torture.

Solitary_Confinement_(4692414179)When an algorithm thinks that the shape of a vase is a fish flanked by human eyes, it’s funny.  But it’s a little less comedic when an algorithm’s mistake ruins somebody’s life – if an incident is designated as a “gang-related crime”, prison sentences can be egregiously long, or send someone to solitary for long enough to cause “anxiety, depression, and hallucinations until their personality is completely destroyed.

Here’s a poem I received in the mail recently:

LOCKDOWN

by Pouncho

For 30 days and 30 nights

I stare at four walls with hate written

         over them.

Falling to my knees from the body blows

         of words.

It damages the mind.

I haven’t had no sleep. 

How can you stop mental blows, torture,

         and names –

         They spread.

I just wanted to scream:

         Why?

For 30 days and 30 nights

My mind was in isolation.

On animals that speak, including humans.

On animals that speak, including humans.

Prairie-DogsWhen prairie dogs speak, they seem to use nouns – hawk, human, wooden cut-out – adjectives – red, blue – and adverbs – moving quickly, slowly.  They might use other parts of speech as well.  Prairie dogs chitter at each other constantly, making many sounds that no humans have yet decoded.

Ever wonder about the evolutionary origin of human intelligence?  The leading theory is that, over many generations, our ancestors became brilliant … in order to gossip better.  It takes a lot of working memory to keep track of the plot of a good soap opera, and our ancestors’ lives were soap operas.  But Carl knows that Shelly doesn’t know that Terrance and Uma are sleeping together, so …

Tool use is pretty cool.  So’s a symbolic understanding of the world – who doesn’t love cave art?  But gossip probably made us who we are.  All those juicy stories begged for a language to be shared.

Many types of birds, such as parrots and crows, spend their lives gossiping.  These busybodies also happen to be some of the smartest species (according to human metrics).  Each seems to have a unique name – through speech, the birds can reference particular individuals.  They clearly remember and can probably describe past events.  Crows can learn about dangerous humans from their fellows.

When I walk around town, squirrels sometimes tsk angrily at me.  But I’ve definitively observed only a single species using its capacity for speech to denounce all other animals.  From Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:

9780316404624_custom-3522b1f2a1f684ab94261905a4d4c9ddf86ca882-s400-c85There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.

Without speech the human beast couldn’t have created any other artifacts, not the crudest club or the simplest hoe, not the wheel or the Atlas rocket, not dance, not music, not even hummed tunes, in fact not tunes at all, not even drumbeats, not rhythm of any kind, not even keeping time with his hands.

This claim is obviously false.  Several different species do create artifacts – either speech is unnecessary for this task, or else other species of animals can speak.  Or both.  In any case, this claim is so easily rebutted – all you’d need is an example of chimpanzees drumming, let along cooking – that it seems a strange conclusion for Wolfe to make.

Don’t get me wrong: humans are pretty great at thinking.  I’m more impressed by mathematical than emotional intelligence, which makes it easy for me to think that the average human is way brighter than the average elephant.

In all likelihood, though, humans have been pretty great at thinking for hundreds of thousands of years.  The cultural evolution that produced the Atlas rocket and skyscrapers was a very sudden development.  For most of the time that humans have been on the planet, our behavior probably didn’t look so different from the behavior of orcas, chimps, or parrots.

Throughout The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe mocks the various theories about human language presented by Noam Chomsky.  (I’m ignoring Wolfe’s claims about evolution, which he says can’t be tested, replicated, or used to elucidate otherwise inexplicable phenomena – in his words, “sincere, but sheer, literature.”  Here and here are two of many recent experiments tracking evolution in progress.)

tom-wolfe-400I often found myself nodding in agreement with Wolfe.  For instance, I’d hope that a linguist making broad claims about human language would learn as many languages as possible.  I think that contradictory evidence from the real world holds more weight than pretty theories.  From Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech:

In the heading of the [2007 New Yorker] article [“The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?”] was a photograph, reprinted many times since, of [Dan] Everett submerged up to his neck in the Maici River.  Only his smiling face is visible.  Right near him but above him is a thirty-five-or-so-year-old Piraha sitting in a canoe in his gym shorts.  It became the image that distinguished Everett from Chomsky.  Immersed! – up to his very neck, Everett is … immersed in the lives of a tribe of hitherto unknown na – er – indigenous peoples in the Amazon’s uncivilized northwest.  No linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span … he never looks down, only inward.  He never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees … more than forty at last count … and remain unmuddied by the Maici or any of the other muck of life down below.

But Chomsky being wrong doesn’t make Wolfe right.

9780262533492In Why Only Us, authors Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky make some suspicious claims.  They argue that human language stems from an innate neurological process that they’ve dubbed “merge,” akin to the combination of two sets to produce a single, indivisible result.  {A} merged to {B} yields {C}, where {C} contains all the elements of {A} and {B}.

This sounds pretty abstract, so an example might help.  Berwick & Chomsky think that a verb and a direct object would be combined into a single “verb phrase” that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  Or, even more complexly, the word “that” leading into a subordinate clause would produce a whole slew of words that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  (In the preceding sentence, the phrase “that is treated as a single unit by our brain” would be one object.)

Robert C. Berwick and Noam ChomskyBerwick & Chomsky’s idea is that complex sentences can be built either by listing the final units in a row or using that hierarchical “merge” operation again, i.e. putting a verb phrase inside a subordinate clause, or one subordinate clause inside another.  Leading eventually to the tangled, twisty syntax of Marcel Proust.

But as far as I could tell (their book has a lot of jargon, and I read it while walking laps of the YMCA track with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest, so it’s possible I missed something), they don’t discuss the difference between two ideas being placed at the same level of interpretation, such as two independent clauses joined by an “and” or “or,” versus a dependent clause adjoined to an independent clause with “but,” “which,” “that,” or what have you.  I couldn’t identify a feature of their argument that suggested why some adjacent words would be processed by a human brain is this special way but others would not.  I could certainly address the way this happens in English, but an evolutionary argument ought to apply to all human language, and I know so little about most others that my opinions seem unhelpful here.

Some of Berwick & Chomsky’s ideas don’t seem to hold even in English, though.  For instance, they claim that:

there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language – say a language-like system with only short sentences.  There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence for such “protolanguages.”  Similar observations hold for language acquisition, despite appearances, a matter that we put to the side here.

But we’re very confidant that spoken language arose long before written language, and the process they describe isn’t how many humans interact with spoken language.  There are definite limits to how many clauses most people can keep in mind at any one time – indeed, much of Why Only Us would sound incomprehensible if read aloud.

Is it reasonable to compare human written language with the spoken language of other animals?  The former is decidedly more complex.  Sure.  But the language actually used by most humans, most of the time, seems much simpler.

When I write, I can strangle syntax as well as any other pedant.  But when I actually talk with people, most of what I say is pretty straightforward.  I get confused if somebody says something to me with too many embedded clauses, or if words intended to operate together on a “structural” level aren’t in close proximity – Berwick & Chomsky spend a while writing about the phrase “instinctively birds that fly swim,” which sounds like gibberish to me.  Just say either “birds that fly instinctively can swim” or “birds that fly can swim instinctively” and you won’t get as many funny looks.  Except for the fact that I don’t think this is true, in either phrasing.  Syntactically, though, you’d be all set!

Colorful_Parrots_CoupleIn any case, all you’d need to show to demonstrate a linguistically equivalent behavior in other animals would be two parrots discussing the beliefs of a third.  This would be the same recursion that Berwick & Chomsky claim produces the “infinity of human language.”

Given that other social animals understand the (false) beliefs of their compatriots, I’d be shocked if they didn’t talk about it.  We just haven’t learned how to listen.

Humans are great.  We’ve accomplished a lot, especially in these last few thousand years (which is incredibly fast compared to evolutionary timescales).  The world has changed even in the short time that I’ve been alive.  But the unfounded claims in both The Kingdom of Speech and Why Only Us made me feel sad: with so much to be proud of, why should we humans also strive to distinguish ourselves with supremacist arrogance?

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large

In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon

The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

quote-language-shapes-the-way-we-think-and-determines-what-we-can-think-about-benjamin-lee-whorf-54-35-67.jpg

But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.

On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.

makegreat-poem

p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.